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Vulci

The archaeological site of Vulci

The archaeological site of Vulci
Photo: Robin Iversen Rönnlund / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The ruins of the Etruscan city and cemeteries of Vulci lie between the modern-day villages of Canino and Montalto di Castro in the province of Viterbo, about 100km north-west of Rome and 16km from the sea. Vulci was at its most prosperous between about 600 and 300 BC. The city’s wealth derived from trade, from the extraction of minerals from nearby Monte Amiata, and from the manufacture and export of bronze vessels, especially jugs and tripods.

Black-figured neck amphora, found in Vulci and bought from Colonel Leake in 1864 (GR.23.1864)

Black-figured neck amphora, found in
Vulci and bought from Colonel W.M.
Leake in 1864 (GR.23.1864)

The wealth of Vulci is reflected in the richness of its tombs. Four main cemeteries have been discovered around the city, and many of the larger, rock-cut tombs are spacious, underground complexes with several rooms, their walls brilliantly painted with scenes of myth, banquets, hunting, fishing or athletics. Lavish grave goods accompanied the dead, from painted Athenian vases to intricate gold jewellery, terracotta sculpture, bronze vessels and imported luxury goods such as ostrich eggs.

More of the Athenian vases known in the world today have been found at Vulci than at any other site, but no-one knows quite why this is the case. In the early nineteenth century, the site of Vulci was on land that mostly belonged to Lucien Buonaparte, Prince of Canino and brother of Napoleon. From 1828 onwards he ruthlessly stripped the tombs of their treasures, keeping some items for his own collection but putting the majority up for auction. Forty-one of the vases now in the Fitzwilliam Museum are said to be from Vulci.

Although the Greek origin of the painted black- and red-figure vases had been recognized by some scholars and collectors from the later eighteenth century onwards, and it was known that the same types of vases were also found in Greece, the rich harvest at Vulci revived the theory that the vases were, rather, Etruscan. As the Prince de Canino put it:

...which is most probable, that the Etrurians, lords of the sea and of Italy and of the Islands, should have introduced one or two of their fine vases into Greece; or that the Greeks, who have never spoken a word of masterly paintings on earthen vases, should have brought to our Hypogea thousands of them ... or that Greek artists should have come to paint master-pieces in Etruria, which they never painted at home? (Archaeologia 23 (1831), 267-8).

Only later in the nineteenth century was it established that the vases were definitely Greek; but this conclusion gave rise to the question that is still debated today, as to why the Etruscans valued Greek vases so highly.

Further reading

For the nineteenth-century excavations at Vulci, see N. Spivey, ‘Greek Vases in Etruria’, in N. Spivey and T. Rasmussen (eds.), Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge, 1991).

For information in English about the archaeological site at Vulci, see the website of the Vulci Naturalistic Archaeological Park